Childhood Nutrition: How the choices you make now will affect the rest of your child’s life
As a society, we struggle to understand what a healthy diet truly consists of. There is constant debate as to what we should feed ourselves – let alone our children. And so, making dietary choices for your child – especially if it is your first – can be a daunting task. It is important to understand how the habits developed during each stage of life directly impact the next. This begins as early as infancy and carries into adolescence and adulthood.
This article is written with the intent to summarize and humanize aspects of childhood nutrition. I have done my research and consider myself well versed on the subject matter, but my main stake in the matter is my person experiences. As I transition into my adult life, I am able to clearly see how the choices that my parents made for me are affecting how I begin to make choices on my own. I’d like for this article to be a resource for parents to use in order to gain a grasp on the importance of childhood nutrition and be able to act on this knowledge from here on out.
What should I be feeding my children?
Yes. We all know we should be feeing our children “a healthy, well-rounded diet,” but what does that actually mean? According to the Mayo Clinic, the nutrients that we need throughout life do not vary, but the amounts change with age, gender, and developmental stages. Research strongly suggests that the consumption of vegetables is the most important factor in the prevention of Metabolic Syndrome which is basically the cluster of health conditions related to obesity and cardiometabolic issues (Jääskeläinen et al. 1937). But this is not to say that vegetables are the only important factor in a child’s diet. Children’s diets should include protein, fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy (Mayo). When picking out what food sources these nutrients should come from it is important to include a variety of each with little to no preservatives or added sugars.
Added sugars and saturated fats should not be prevalent in your child’s diet, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be present. Outlawing certain foods like candy or ice cream can often times have an unwarranted effect on children (Klenke). There is nothing wrong with allowing your children to indulge in certain “unhealthy” foods from time to time. However, don’t use these instances as rewards. Don’t tell your children that because they did something commendable, that they will be able to have a sweet treat. These foods should by no means be a substantial part of any child’s diet but allowing children to explore these foods can be beneficial a well.
At a young age, variety is important. While the taste buds are still developing it is easier to introduce different flavors to children and experience higher success rates. Introduction of specific foods at any age can lead to the adaptation of a positive attitude towards that food when repeatedly encouraged. It is even becoming known that taste preferences begin to develop as early as during pregnancy. Aspects of a mother’s diet influence the amniotic fluid surrounding the fetus and begin to develop preferences (Savage et al. 2).
As a child I was a picky eater and I would always ask my mom why my older brother liked so many foods, but I didn’t. I remember her telling me how when she was pregnant with him, she ate a wide variety of foods, but that made her sick. So, when she was pregnant with me, she stuck to basic foods to avoid upsetting her own stomach. My mom didn’t really know any of the science behind the matter, but all the evidence seemed to back up her conclusion. Now, doing research for this article, I can see that she was absolutely right all along.
This isn’t to say that taste preferences developed during pregnancy or infancy are set in stone. It is never too late to introduce new foods to children. The later in life that you – as a parent – wait to introduce new foods to your children, the more difficult it may be to get them to like that food, so it is best you start as early as possible.
How do eating habits play a role?
It’s not just about what you feed your children. It’s about how and when. This is another topic that is sometimes disputed upon in today’s society. There is discussion about whether the classic three meals a day is still the correct way to go or should we be eating closer to six smaller meals each day. The reality is, six meals is tough to plan for and even tougher to manage for an adult, let alone for children. There is controversy between which is truly the correct method, but really it is about which works better for you individually. I will say, however, that consistency is key. It is not wise to be feed your children three meals some days and six on others.
You are the most important influence on your child’s eating behaviors. While you may want them to do as you say and not as you do, children will mimic your actions. Establishing family mealtime routines can greatly benefit your child’s outlook on healthy eating habits. It is important that all members – even the adult ones- of the family be eating healthy, well rounded meals in order to display to your children that it is the right thing to do (Klenke). As the parent you are deciding what foods your children will eat, when they will eat them, and where these meals or snacks will take place, but it is important to allow your children to decided how much they will eat. The age-old practice of forcing children to clear their plate is not an affective one. Their young bodies know how to regulate their food intake to the levels that they need (Klenke).
Why is all of this important?
It may seem obvious why all this information that I have presented to you is important. Everyone wants their child to be healthy, right? That’s right, proper nutrition and eating habits are key steps on the path to a healthy lifestyle through independence – long after you are making food choices for your kids. But nutrition affects more aspects of life than many people truly understand. Cognitive development through the stages of early childhood development is heavily dependent upon the nutrients that children receive (Perez-Escamilla and Moran 2). The growth and development of your children’s brain depends on the food you feed them! Stunted growth and cognitive stunting are found to be related to poor nutritional habits from infancy through adolescence (Perez-Escamilla and Moran 2). Not only do the foods eaten affect this growth, but the shared human experience of eating serves as an environment of learning and communication for children.
Your children’s emotional development also relies heavily on their nutritional habits created at a young age (Liu 1). Benefits to positive eating habits in young children include overall good health, higher activity levels, social behavior, and improved motor skills, but issues such as overeating or undereating can lead to detrimental physical and mental health issues (Liu 2). Not only are your children at risk for medical problems associated with overeating or undereating, but the probability of psychological issues increases with this as well.
Am I too late?
Now, a lot of this information focuses on the benefits of early adaptation of eating habits, and that may leave some of you worried that it is too late for you and your children. No matter the time, it is never too late to instill healthy nutrition habits into your children. While it may be more difficult to change what is already established, making healthy choices can begin at any age.
About my sources
For this article, I chose to use a variety of sources which are both academic and non-academic. The academic information that I chose to include is taken from reputable sources such as nutritionists, doctors, and conducted studies. The less academic pieces that enabled me to write this article were chosen for their human viewpoint and realistic expectations. Often times the expectations set by nutrition studies are impossible to reach, and that has a negative effect on the way in which their information is acted upon. When people read articles with unrealistic expectations – such as the complete elimination of added sugars and saturated fats from children’s diets – they often tend not to act on any of the information given. On the other hand, when people are presented with the same information but realistic ways of meeting those standards, they are more likely to try.
“How to Create Healthy Eating Habits for Kids.” Nationwide Children's Hospital, www.nationwidechildrens.org/family-resources-education/700childrens/2015/05/how-to-create-healthy-eating-habits-for-kids.
“What Nutrients Does Your Child Need Now?” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 15 June 2017, www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/childrens-health/in-depth/nutrition-for-kids/art-20049335.
Jääskeläinen, Paula, et al. “Childhood Nutrition in Predicting Metabolic Syndrome in Adults.” Diabetes Care, American Diabetes Association, 1 Sept. 2012, care.diabetesjournals.org/content/35/9/1937.article-info.
Pérez-Escamilla, Rafael, and Victoria Hall Moran. “The Role of Nutrition in Integrated Early Child Development in the 21st Century: Contribution from the Maternal and Child Nutrition Journal.” Maternal & Child Nutrition, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Jan. 2017, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28032479.
Savage, Jennifer S, et al. “Parental Influence on Eating Behavior: Conception to Adolescence.” The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics : a Journal of the American Society of Law, Medicine & Ethics, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2007, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2531152/.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.